Old Havana’s Spanish Forts

Traces of Spanish colonialism are easy to find scattered across the Caribbean and Latin America. Some of the greatest cities of the New World were built to project the power of Spain: Panama Viejo, Cartagena, Lima, Buenos Aires and, perhaps most important of all, Havana Vieja. The wealth of these cities was coveted by many and jealously guarded by Spain.

The massive complex of fortifications the Spanish built to protect Havana, first from pirates and later from competing European nations, is breathtaking in its scope and size. These are magnificent places, full of the history of a fascinating period. They’re also an indication of the value placed on Havana, where Spanish treasure ships congregated before risking the Atlantic crossing.

Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta, Havana, Cuba

Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta, Havana, Cuba

Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, Havana, Cuba

Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, Havana, Cuba

Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro, Havana, Cuba

Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro, Havana, Cuba

In Havana Vieja, sitting on one corner of the Plaza de Armas, the Castillo de la Real Fuerza feels like it’s part of the city. In reality, construction began in 1558, making it one of the oldest fortifications in the Americas. Surrounded by a moat it has impressive ‘spiked’ corners.

The Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta sits a short distance away on the western side of the harbour entrance, and was part of the defensive walls of the old city. Today it plays host to a few cannons, and has views of fishermen trying to catch their supper in the aquamarine waters it guards.

Castillo de la Real Fuerza, Havana, Cuba

Castillo de la Real Fuerza, Havana, Cuba

Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro, Havana, Cuba

Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro, Havana, Cuba

Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta, Havana, Cuba

Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta, Havana, Cuba

Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro, Havana, Cuba

Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro, Havana, Cuba

Opposite, on the eastern side of the harbour entrance, is the 18th Century Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, one of the largest fortifications in the Americas (second only to Castillo San Felipe de Barajas in Cartagena). Nearby is the picturesque Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro, complete with lighthouse.

Spain believed Castillo Morro to be impregnable, which proved too tempting for the British during the Seven Years’ War (1756 – 63) – a European war fought globally thanks to the expansion of European empires. The conflict raged across Europe, Canada, the United States, West Africa, India, the Philippines and the Caribbean.

The Spanish allied themselves with France against Britain and Prussia, three of which had a powerful interest in attacking each others’ colonies. Spain’s Empire was plundered by the British in the Caribbean, while the French and British fought for control of North America, West African and India.

In 1762 a British fleet of fifty ships and twenty thousand men sailed into view off Havana. After a failed seaborne attack, the British took to land and marched on the rear of Castillo Morro. Setting up camp on high ground above the castle they spent the next forty-four days lobbing bombs at the Spanish. When the castle fell the British turned their attention to Havana.

Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, Havana, Cuba

Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, Havana, Cuba

Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, Havana, Cuba

Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, Havana, Cuba

Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, Havana, Cuba

Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, Havana, Cuba

Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, Havana, Cuba

Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, Havana, Cuba

Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, Havana, Cuba

Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, Havana, Cuba

Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, Havana, Cuba

Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, Havana, Cuba

For nine months the British controlled Havana and Cuba. But the British, fresh from victory over France in Canada, preferred to protect their North American colonies than to keep Cuba. The end of the Seven Years’ War saw Britain swap Cuba for Florida. A Cleopatra’s Nose Theory if ever there was one.

Dominating the skyline to the east, the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña was constructed after the harsh lessons of the Seven Years’ War. It’s full of magnificent old Spanish cannons, inscribed with royal insignia and the place and date of their forging. It has spectacular views over Havana. 700 metres long and 10 hectares in size, it was meant to deter all-comers. No one was foolhardy enough to attack it.

Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, Havana, Cuba

Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, Havana, Cuba

Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, Havana, Cuba

Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, Havana, Cuba

Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro, Havana, Cuba

Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro, Havana, Cuba

Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro, Havana, Cuba

Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro, Havana, Cuba

After the Cuban Revolution, Che Guevara set up his headquarters in the fort and here he summarily tried and executed opponents of the Revolution. When people fondly remember the romantic revolutionary, whose iconic image adorns millions of t-shirts, the extrajudicial killings for which he was responsible are mostly forgotten. Such is history.

Where we stayed in Havana:
Joel y Yadilis
Industria 120 altos e/ Trocadero y Colon.
Habana.
Tel. (537) 863 0565 / Movil 05 2835769
Email palomita3ra@gmail.com
www.casa-centro-habana.de

A walk through Trujillo’s medieval streets

There is a saying in these parts, that twenty Latin American countries were born in Trujillo. The reference is to the hundreds of Conquistadors who came from the town and surrounding villages, and travelled to the Americas seeking their fortune. Or at least better fortune than backward and poverty stricken 16th Century Extremadura could offer them. Men like Francisco Pizarro who conquered the Inca Empire in Peru, Francisco de las Casas who rode alongside Hernán Cortés when he conquered Mexico, and Nuño de Chaves who founded Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia, all stamped their mark on the Americas.

Castle, Trujillo, Extremadura, Spain

Castle, Trujillo, Extremadura, Spain

Trujillo, Extremadura, Spain

Trujillo, Extremadura, Spain

The vast wealth they accumulated as they rampaged through ancient civilisations from Argentina to Mexico has stamped its mark on Trujillo. The old town, safely inside the city walls, is filled with beautiful 16th and 17th Century mansions, all constructed with looted silver and gold; their ill-gotten gains built and endowed numerous sumptuous churches; and the narrow medieval streets hold a powerful fascination, every turn bringing you into contact with reminders of the extraordinary historical events in which Trujillo had a central role.

We arrived in the late afternoon under a blue sky and hot sun. After checking into our hotel, housed in the former 16th Century Santa Clara monastery, we headed to the Plaza Mayor to take the pulse of the town. The plaza is a beautiful place, the wonderful atmosphere only undone by the number of cars passing through it. After a quick visit to the cathedral, we plonked ourselves down at one of the cafes and did some people watching while relaxing with local tapas and Extremadura wine.

Fully refreshed we hit the streets. It was mid-week and the town was pretty quiet, walking the steep and winding lanes is incredibly atmospheric, history seems to seep out of the walls. This is good because you’ll get a closer view of the walls than expected as you fling yourself against them, or into a stranger’s doorway, to avoid being run over by speeding locals who drive up and down the narrow streets with abandon. Cars are a blight on Trujillo, nowhere seems to be pedestrian friendly.

We found ourselves at the top of the town outside the imposing walls of the castle. Originally Moorish, it was captured in 1232 by the Reconquista, and expanded under Christian rule. Presumably benefitting from Inca and Maya gold. From up here, and under a low Spring sun, the town looks spectacular.

Winding our way back through the town we passed more extraordinary medieval mansions, taking in a couple of churches as we went, and explored wonderful streets that feel like walking through history – at least when you’re not dodging cars. Given the history of some of the buildings, it’s bizarre to discover many seemed abandoned and in a state of neglect verging on disrepair. This included the Palacio de Conquista, the grand house on a corner of the main square built by Hernando Pizarro, the only one of the four brothers to die in Spain.

The town isn’t big and we soon found ourselves back in the Plaza Mayor. It was definitely time to sample a few local dishes – this region is famed for good food – and to expand our knowledge of Exremadura wines. I’d read somewhere that the wine of this region was gaining a reputation internationally, in a good way, so it seemed like a wise investment to get ahead of the curve. The night air was still a bit chilly, and on a Tuesday night the town quiet, but this is Spain and we found our way to a busy restaurant for a fun evening sampling the local produce.

An improbable town called Mompox

Mompox (full name Santa Cruz de Mompox) may not actually be the setting for Gabriel García Márquez’s fictional town of Macondo, made famous in his surrealist masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude, but it has all the ingredients of the Macondo that he paints such a vivid picture of in his best known work. Plus, Mompox isn’t too far from where García Márquez grew up.

Mompox was virtually unheard of until the Spanish built a canal between Cartagena and the Rio Magdalena. Based at a strategic point on the river, Mompox suddenly found itself at the epicentre of Spanish trade in Colombia and flourished. In the late nineteenth century trade switched to a different branch of the Rio Magdalena, and Mompox’s rapid decline back to a sleepy backwater barely acknowledged by the outside world was complete.

The parallels with Macondo are all there.

Church in Mompox, Colombia

Church in Mompox, Colombia

Street and church in Mompox, Colombia

Street and church in Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

A trip to Mompox today is a fascinating peak back in time. The town sits on the slow-flowing Rio Magdalena, which alone gives it a timeless air, and nothing seems to happen with much urgency, either on the river or in the town. It isn’t quite as isolated today as it used to be, and tourism is slowly making inroads into the town’s historic detachment from the rest of the world.

Rio Magdalena, Mompox, Colombia

Rio Magdalena, Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mind you, it can still be a struggle to get there. We arrived from Barichara, changing buses in San Gill and again in Bucaramanga. The final bus between Bucaramanga and El Banco (where we would pick up a share taxi to Mompox) was supposed to take 9 – 12 hours. Regardless, we’d be arriving in El Banco in the wee hours of the morning and would have to wait for the share taxis to start running.

As it turned out, the bus to El Banco took 6 hours and we arrived just after 10pm. Something of a dilemma: wait 6 hours through the night in a town with nothing to entertain us until the first share taxi left at 4am, or try to find a hotel? We found a hotel. For the princely sum of US$18 we spent the night in a dirty room, full of mosquitoes, that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a prison. Not a great night’s sleep.

Street in Mompox, Colombia

Street in Mompox, Colombia

Fruit seller, Mompox, Colombia

Fruit seller, Mompox, Colombia

Church in Mompox, Colombia

Church in Mompox, Colombia

Mompox was far more delightful when we finally arrived the next day. Founded in 1537, the town’s importance as a centre for trade between the Caribbean and the interior of Colombia meant it grew wealthy. At one time the town minted coins for the Spanish colony. Today that means you can find magnificent colonial churches dating from the sixteenth century, streets lined with colonial mansions and, a hangover from the days of the mint, silver work in the form of filigree.

Mompox is surrounded by wetlands and being low lying is extremely hot and humid. Made worse when we visited by the onset of the rainy season. It is the sort of heat and humidity that literally sucks the life out of you and leaves you feeling vaguely hopeless. Even though it sits on the banks of a wide river, there was no breeze at all. Is it any wonder that a lot of residents seem to spend their days sitting in the shade drinking cold beer?

Mompox cemetery, Colombia

Mompox cemetery, Colombia

Mompox cemetery, Colombia

Mompox cemetery, Colombia

Mompox cemetery, Colombia

Mompox cemetery, Colombia

Mompox cemetery, Colombia

Mompox cemetery, Colombia

The town’s history extends beyond the Spanish colony. It is proud of the role it played in the liberation of Colombia from colonial rule. Simón Bolívar recruited a large number of men from Mompox to fight for Colombia’s independence from Spain, and they formed the core of his victorious armies. Today there are numerous statues, plazas and shops dotted around town that are named after Latin America’s most famous independence hero.

While Mompox isn’t quite as isolated and insular as our guidebook suggested, it is an extraordinary place to wash up and really has to be seen to be believed. While it is much easier to reach it from the Caribbean coast than from the south, the effort is definitely worth it.

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Stepping back through history, the delights of colonial Barichara

Barichara has a dream-like quality – a fabulously preserved colonial village that feels about a thousand years away from the hustle and bustle of Bogota. A few days spent eating delicious pastries and sipping good coffee on the tranquil plaza, visiting colonial churches and wandering down peaceful cobbled streets is a real pleasure. Spend too much time here and it may be difficult to tell dreams from reality.

The modern world hasn’t passed Barichara by, although its not so intrusive that you’d really notice. It has a number of lovely hotels in old colonial buildings predominately catering to wealthy Colombians, who come here from Bogota for the peace and refreshing climate.

The cathedral in Barichara, Colombia

The cathedral in Barichara, Colombia

Barichara, Colombia

Barichara, Colombia

Barichara, Colombia

Barichara, Colombia

Window in Barichara, Colombia

Window in Barichara, Colombia

It really is like stepping back in time. So well preserved is the village that it has been the film set for numerous Spanish-language films and soap operas, although thankfully there were no telenovela histrionics while we were there. The colonial charm of the village is not the only thing that is special about Barichara; it is located on the top of an escarpment that has magnificent views over the vast valley below, where you can watch eagles and vultures soaring.

Valley or the Rio Suarez, Barichara, Colombia

Valley or the Rio Suarez, Barichara, Colombia

Valley or the Rio Suarez, Barichara, Colombia

Valley or the Rio Suarez, Barichara, Colombia

Tradition is big in Barichara. Life revolves around the beautiful main plaza, which features the splendid Catedral de Inmaculada Concepcion – a church that couldn’t be more Spanish on the outside if it was actually in Spain. Leading off in every direction from the plaza are lovely cobbled streets lined with whitewashed houses with red-tiled roofs.

Barichara, Colombia

Barichara, Colombia

Barichara, Colombia

Barichara, Colombia

Barichara, Colombia

Barichara, Colombia

Wandering the streets is a pleasant way to get to know the geography of the town. Before too long you’ll have managed to find your way to two or three other colonial-era churches and the fascinating and atmospheric cemetery. The view over the village from near the Iglesia de Santa Barbara is spectacular.

View over Barichara, Colombia

View over Barichara, Colombia

View over Barichara, Colombia

View over Barichara, Colombia

Barichara has good restaurants, although most were closed when we were there – the one downside of a small village in the middle of the week in the off season. The village is also the centre of a disturbing culinary tradition, the eating of a local delicacy – large brown ants. We decided we’d try the ants, when in Rome etc, but they are only in season in the Spring so we were spared an ant taste test. Although we did see them on sale along the roadside when we were on the bus.

Capilla de Jesus Resucitado, Barichara, Colombia

Capilla de Jesus Resucitado, Barichara, Colombia

Capilla de Jesus Resucitado, Barichara, Colombia

Capilla de Jesus Resucitado, Barichara, Colombia

Cemetery of the Capilla de Jesus Resucitado, Barichara, Colombia

Cemetery of the Capilla de Jesus Resucitado, Barichara, Colombia

Cemetery of the Capilla de Jesus Resucitado, Barichara, Colombia

Cemetery of the Capilla de Jesus Resucitado, Barichara, Colombia

Cemetery of the Capilla de Jesus Resucitado, Barichara, Colombia

Cemetery of the Capilla de Jesus Resucitado, Barichara, Colombia

At night there is little to do but have an early dinner then sit around in one of the several shops that are on the plaza…which also double as drinking dens…pull up a seat and watch the world not go by in the plaza.

Cathedral at night, Barichara, Colombia

Cathedral at night, Barichara, Colombia

Shop and drinking den, Barichara, Colombia

Shop and drinking den, Barichara, Colombia

Shop, Barichara, Colombia

Shop, Barichara, Colombia

Shop and drinking den, Barichara, Colombia

Shop and drinking den, Barichara, Colombia

Bogota’s Museo del Oro, the best museum in Latin America?

The Museo del Oro in Bogota is a magical place. It boasts a wealth of gold objects and other artefacts made from precious metals, sea shells and jade, as well as a number of fantastic pottery pieces. If its amazing that the gold pieces have survived the onslaught of several centuries of European greed in the Americas, the survival of clay pieces is almost as wondrous.

Its not just the brilliance of the items on display, or the fact that there are over fifty thousand of them; its not just that the displays are inventive and beautifully presented, or that the information that accompanies them is intriguing and informative. It is the combination of all of this that brings pre-Hispanic history and culture alive and makes Bogota’s Museo del Oro one of the finest, if not the finest, museum in the Americas.

A golden conch shell, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

A golden conch shell, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Musical instrument, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Musical instrument, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Clay fertility statue, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Clay fertility statue, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Clay statue, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Clay statue, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

I doubt there is a museum anywhere on the continent that can boast such a wealth of artefacts and information on the pre-Hispanic cultures that existed before the Spanish arrival in the Americas. The most fascinating part was the direct connection between the artefacts and the belief systems of the indigenous tribes that they represent. I’ve not come across such a comprehensive description of pre-Hispanic cultures before.

The tribes that lived in this part of the Americas held the natural world in awe. There was a strong belief in the ability of transformations or transmutations into beings that were part animal and part human. In part this was achieved through hallucinogens that induced a trance-like state, but also by the use of gold ornaments with images of animals on them.

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Golden sea shells, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Golden sea shells, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Decorating yourself in these ornaments helped you observe the world through the eyes of the jaguar, crocodile, bat, bird, spirits or ancestors. Essentially, society for Amerindians is viewed as being united with nature – plants, animals, spirits and humans all forming a cosmic society split into three tiers. Birds represent the upper world; humans, jaguars and deer represent the intermediate world; while bats, snakes and crocodiles represent the lower world.

The upper and lower worlds have opposing but complementary elements: light and dark, dry and wet, male and female. The intermediate world where humans live combines elements of both. Gods, dead ancestors and spirits inhabit both the upper and lower worlds.

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Golden mask, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Golden mask, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Golden mask, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Golden mask, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Golden mask, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Golden mask, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

One gallery deals with the role that powerful hallucinogens played in aiding transformations between the human and animal realms. An hallucinogenic powder called Yopo was frequently used for religious rites and was inhaled using a a small spoon or through the bones of small birds. Humanity hasn’t changed all that much really.

Container for holding hallucinogenic powder, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Container for holding hallucinogenic powder, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Container for holding hallucinogenic powder and spoon, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Container for holding hallucinogenic powder and spoon, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Instruments for taking hallucinogenic powder, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Instruments for taking hallucinogenic powder, Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

One of the final displays is like being in an immersion tank: you enter a darkened circular room, the doors close around you and music starts to play. As the music peaks and troughs sections of the walls, floor and ceiling are illuminated to highlight huge displays of golden objects. It is an impressive way to end your time in the museum, and it highlights again just how much cultural heritage has been lost since Europeans arrived in the Americas.

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Bogota, Colombia

Sleepy El Castillo, centre of an eighteenth century global conflict

Its difficult to imagine as you stroll down the ‘main street’ of El Castillo, but in the seventeenth and eighteenth century this village was at the centre of a global conflict between competing European nations that saw bloody battles between English fleets and Spanish defenders. The reason for those conflicts was a fortress built by the Spanish to prevent pirates from sailing up the Rio San Juan from the Caribbean to attack the fabulously wealthy city of Granada.

Granada was sacked and looted three times by pirates between 1655 and 1670, including famously by the Welsh pirate, Henry Morgan. In response, the Spanish built a fort on a bend in the Rio San Juan between two sets of rapids that slowed ships down and allowed the fort to train its cannons on them.

El Castillo from the Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

El Castillo from the Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

El Castillo from the Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

El Castillo from the Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

El Castillo from the Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

El Castillo from the Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

The site is spectacular. From the battlements you can see for miles down the river and over the top of the vast tropical rain forest that surrounds it. It is hard to take in what it must have been like to be a Spanish soldier posted to this remote site in the forest, surrounded by hostile indigenous tribes and subject to malaria and other tropical diseases.

The Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The rapids underneath the Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The rapids underneath the Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Rio San Juan from the Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Rio San Juan from the Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Rio San Juan from the Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Rio San Juan from the Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

Today it still feels remote – to reach the village involves a one and a half hour boat ride from San Carlos at the entrance to Lago Nicaragua where the river begins – but the effort to get there is well worth it. El Castillo is a sleepy place where you can relax for a few days between trips to surrounding natural wonders, including the extraordinary Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, a vast and pristine tropical rain forest.

El Castillo, Nicaragua

El Castillo, Nicaragua

El Castillo, Nicaragua

El Castillo, Nicaragua

El Castillo, Nicaragua

El Castillo, Nicaragua

El Castillo, Nicaragua

El Castillo, Nicaragua

Perhaps the most famous incident in the history of El Castillo was in 1762 when Rafaela Herrera, the teenage daughter of the dead fort commander, rallied the troops and defeated an English fleet headed for Granada. Although El Castillo’s true moment in the sun was during the California Gold Rush from 1848-55 when it was an important staging point for prospectors trying to reach San Francisco.

This was pre-Panama Canal and a decade before the US transcontinental railway, making it the quickest way to get from the East Coast of the US to the West Coast. Ironic then that the Nicaraguan government is conspiring with Chinese investors to build another transcontinental canal to rival the one in Panama. One possible route will be the Rio San Juan, something guaranteed to destroy both the natural environment of this region and the main reason for tourists to come here.

The Rio San Juan from the Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Rio San Juan from the Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

The Spanish fort at El Castillo, Nicaragua

We spent a few days here absorbing river life and watching the world go by in small boats. El Castillo is another place where geography and history have conspired to keep it free of motor vehicles, so the world goes by much more quietly. The region is famous for giant river shrimp, much to our disappointment this wasn’t the season for shrimp – seriously, this is the sort of information a guidebook should give you!

The village is very welcoming and is starting to build a solid tourist infrastructure. Things will change in the next few years, but currently it feels like you have fallen off the tourist trail. People in the village genuinely want to encourage tourism, a guide we hired to take us to the forest put it very simply: before tourism many people in the village worked illegally (and cheaply) picking fruit in Costa Rica. Tourism, he implied, had restored a sense of pride in El Castillo.

Death and glory: the beautiful, brutal history of the Rio San Juan

Hands up anyone who has ever heard of the Rio San Juan? Me either, but it is one of the most beautiful and tranquil places in Nicaragua and it boasts a history second to none.

Since the Aztecs first used the Rio San Juan in the 1200s to link their trade routes from east to west, the river has been a vital artery between the Pacific and the Caribbean. In the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it was at the centre of a global battle between European nations vying for the treasures of the new world.

Throughout those centuries the river became the stuff of legend, incorporating Inca gold shipped to Spain by Conquistadors; pirates sneaking up the river to attack the fabulously wealthy Spanish colonial city of Granada; a teenage girl defending the fort at El Castillo against a flotilla of English ships; and the English navy, led by Horatio Nelson, attacking Spanish forts along the river before being driven back as his men died wholesale from malaria and dysentery.

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

In the nineteenth century the river was a global super-highway shuttling prospectors to the California Gold Rush (1848-55), making shipping magnet Cornelius Vanderbilt a very wealthy man. More than 150,000 people travelled up the Rio San Juan en route to San Francisco and the river was the scene of frenzied activity. At the rapids by the village of El Castillo a railway was constructed to help transfer passengers from one boat to another.

From the earliest days of the discovery of Nicaragua in 1502, the strategic and commercial importance of a waterway linking the Pacific and the Atlantic was understood. The Rio San Juan flows out of Lago Nicaragua, which is only a short distance from the Pacific ocean and could have been linked by a canal. Towards the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth centuries this almost became a reality but Panama got there first.

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

The dramas played out along this river are virtually unknown today, even though it continues to be a source of tension and occasional conflict between Nicaragua and Costa Rica. The river is entirely Nicaraguan, but just south of El Castillo it forms the border between the two countries and there is an ongoing dispute between them as to the right to use the river.

Border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Border between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Inside a panga, Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Inside a panga, Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

If there is a more historic and dramatic river in the Americas than Rio San Juan I don’t know where it is, yet the river is so much more than its history. It flows through a beautiful and timeless area of Nicaragua and links small, isolated but welcoming communities that are just now opening their doors to tourism. It is a truly wonderful region to visit.

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Blue Heron, Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Blue Heron, Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

Rio San Juan, Nicaragua

As you travel down the river there is a stark contrast between the Nicaraguan side and the Costa Rican side. Along the Nicaraguan side lies a vast and pristine rain forest, the Reserva Biologica Indio-Maiz, that is home to an extraordinary catalogue of flora and fauna. The Costa Rican side is virtually deforested. In other words, a country known for its ecological policies has allowed a tropical rain forest to be destroyed. Luckily it can still be seen and visited on the Nicaraguan side.

Glorious, Gorgeous Granada…Nicaragua

The Spanish must have either been homesick or utterly lacking in imagination when they started naming towns in their newly conquered territories in the Americas. As someone who has spent a bit of time in Spain there have been a number of familiar names on our trip through Latin America. Perhaps it was just the colonising mindset, after all there is a Manchester, Vermont and a Birmingham, Alabama.

Sorry about that Alabama.

Granada is one of the most cultured and beautiful cities in Spain, home to the world-renowned Alhambra. Its history stretches back to the eighth century BC and it was a centre of Islamic learning and grandeur under its Moorish rulers, before becoming a major prize of the Reconquista as the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand III and Isabel I overthrew centuries of Moorish rule on the Iberian Peninsular. Its architecture and legacy are world famous.

View of the cathedral and rooftops of Granada, Nicaragua

View of the cathedral and rooftops of Granada, Lago Nicaragua in the background, Nicaragua

Nicaragua’s Granada has a lot to live up to. Founded in 1524, it may not be world-renowned and it may only offer a fraction of the architecture, but, perched on the edge of Lago Nicaragua and with a wealth of colonial buildings, shady people-friendly plazas and a couple of beautiful churches, it is a fabulously relaxed town to spend time wandering the streets and stepping into some of its excellent restaurants and bars.

Street in the colonial centre of Granada, Nicaragua

Street in the colonial centre of Granada, Nicaragua

Cathedral and main plaza. Granada, Nicaragua

Cathedral and main plaza. Granada, Nicaragua

Street stall. Granada, Nicaragua

Street stall. Granada, Nicaragua

Historic building, Granada, Nicaragua

Historic building, Granada, Nicaragua

Granada, Nicaragua, grew rich on trade that went via Lago Nicaragua, down the Rio San Juan and out to the North Atlantic via the Caribbean Sea. The route from the Pacific to the Atlantic via the Rio San Juan once made Nicaragua rich, and was proposed as an earlier alternative to the Panama Canal. Even today it is still talked of as a possibility, however unlikely that seems.

So rich did this trade make Granada that, even though it was a long way from the Caribbean coast, it attracted the attentions of pirates. Perhaps one of the most extraordinary attacks came 1665 when Welsh pirate Henry Morgan navigated the Rio San Juan with canoes and paddled across Lago Nicaragua to sack the city. A hugely dangerous and technically difficult feat that made Morgan famous.

The Mercado Municipal. Granada, Nicaragua

The Mercado Municipal. Granada, Nicaragua

Rum advertisement, Granada, Nicaragua

Rum advertisement, Granada, Nicaragua

Horse and cart, Granada, Nicaragua

Horse and cart, Granada, Nicaragua

The one thing the two cities of Granada share it is that they drip with a sultry, energy-sapping heat. My advice is, get out early, swing in a hammock through the heat of the day (or pay for air conditioning) and hit the streets late afternoon as the sun starts to sink over the horizon and partake of some of Nicaragua’s best people watching while walking the city streets.

There are two Granadas in more than one way. While the colonial centre of this city is as pleasant a place to spend a few days strolling as any I’ve been to in the Americas; the other Granada of tin-roofed shacks and grinding poverty is only a few blocks away. You frequently see carts with skinny horses pulling people and goods around the city. It is a real contrast to the wealth of the colonial centre and especially to the countries to the south of Nicaragua.

Typical family house, Granada, Nicaragua

Typical family house, Granada, Nicaragua

Horse-drawn transport, Granada, Nicaragua

Horse-drawn transport, Granada, Nicaragua

Bus, Granada, Nicaragua

Bus, Granada, Nicaragua

We stayed in a hotel (Hotel Casa Barcelona) outside of the centre a few blocks from the mercardo municipal. Its a lovely hotel that is set up to help single mothers – of which there are plenty in Nicaragua – and is located in a much more typical barrio. There might not be any lovely colonial architecture here, and people may be poor, but it is a friendly neighbourhood that allows you to get a glimpse of how the vast majority of Nicaraguans live.

Street through the Mercado Municipal. Granada, Nicaragua

Street through the Mercado Municipal. Granada, Nicaragua

Sign in the Mercado Municipal. Granada, Nicaragua

Sign in the Mercado Municipal. Granada, Nicaragua

Shop in the Mercardo Municipal, Granada, Nicaragua

Shop in the Mercardo Municipal, Granada, Nicaragua

As with much of Central America, Granada has attracted a large number of Europeans and North Americans to either retire or start businesses. A complaint we heard a number of times was that gringos were buying up all the best properties and Nicaraguans were being priced out of the city centre, which was starting to lose its traditions and spirit.

While true, many gringo owned businesses have a social mission as well, which is just as well since there is a huge need for investment in basic health, education and social services which the government is struggling to provide. Still, it is good to try to spread the dollars around so that some make their way directly to Nicaraguan businesses.

Public transport Nicaraguan-style, Granada

Public transport Nicaraguan-style, Granada

San Jose’s fascinating Museo de Oro

I know calling something ‘fascinating’ immediately makes it sound worthy and probably not much fun, but the Museo de Oro Precolombino in San Jose really was fascinating…and I found it fun.

Gold museums seem to have spread far and wide in this part of the world. It amazes me that there were enough gold and silver objects left after the Spanish finished looting the civilisations they colonised in the Americas to warrant building even one Museo de Oro, but I’ve already been to three and they have all been wonderful.

Perhaps it is testimony to the wealth of gold objects that pre-Hispanic civilisations created as symbols of authority or religion, or, perhaps, the fascination most of us have with this shiny and valuable metal, but the gold museums of Colombia and Costa Rica are some of the most interesting museums I’ve visited.

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

The Museo de Oro Precolombino in San Jose is excellent, justifying its US$12 entrance fee…although to be fair the entrance ticket also gives you access to two other museums and a special exhibition of paintings by Lola Fernandez. Its housed (and owned) by the Banco Nacional, and is home to some of the most important and priceless gold objects that survived the Spanish colonisation.

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Thanks to vast trade routes connecting Central America to the Incan, Aztec and Mayan civilisations, there are many similarities with gold objects I saw in Cartagena and Santa Maria. Some of the pieces, however, are truly unique. I loved the representations of sea creatures, which I’d not seen before. There are representations of all the animals that played a key role in the life of Central American cultures prior to the arrival of the Spanish: frogs, bats, crocodiles, jaguars and a host of birds.

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

One of the advantages of visiting the Museo de Oro Precolombino is that there is a detailed explanation of how many of the objects were made. This involved creating a wax model, forming a clay mould around the wax, melting the wax and then pouring the gold/silver/alloy into the clay mould. It was an amazingly advanced artistic method that required skilled execution if the objects weren’t to be ruined.

One of the features of many of the more recent (i.e. 600 -800 years old) items is that the gold was mixed with copper to create an alloy that had very different visual properties to a solid gold item. This shows that gold wasn’t valued in-and-of-itself, and that Central American metallurgists were experimenting to create new and unique items for use as religious and political symbols.

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Oro Precolombino, San Jose, Costa Rica

There is also a fabulous short film about the cultures that created the items you’re viewing, which really helps understand the cultural significance of the objects.

Do you know the way to San Jose? San Jose Costa Rica, that is…

San Jose, capital of Costa Rica, comes with a certain reputation and it is one very far removed from the San Jose that Dionne Warwick made famous in 1968. San Jose, Costa Rica, is a difficult town to love: it has a surplus of ugly buildings and areas in and around the city centre feel at best edgy and at night out-and-out threatening.

On the other hand, it has a couple of excellent museums and some even better restaurants that make coming here worth the effort. At one point we didn’t think we’d make it to San Jose. We got our 9.30am bus in Cahuita for the 5 hour journey and for an hour things went to plan. Then we hit solid traffic and didn’t move again for another three hours. There was a nationwide taxi strike and they were blocking the road…who knew?

Once in the city our first port of call was the Museo de Jade, the Jade Museum. Our guide book wasn’t enthusiastic about the museum, but it was fabulous. An extraordinary collection of pre-Hispanic jade artefacts sitting alongside some exceptional pieces of pottery, in amazing condition, that chart the history of the cultures that existed wedged between the Mayan civilisation to the north and the Inca civilisation to the south.

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Jade was valued as a religious and political symbol in pre-Hispanic Central America. The nearest jade quarries are deep inside modern day Guatemala, making its transport difficult and its price high. Despite the fabulous jade artefacts on display, some of the most captivating items in the museum are made from clay, many of them in excellent condition thanks to being found intact in burial chambers.

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

There were a number of thriving pre-Colombian cultures in Central America, with hundreds of thousands of people inhabiting the region. Unfortunately without written histories, and the sudden impact of Spanish colonisation, very little is known about them. The artefacts in the Museo de Jade show influences particularly from the Mayan culture, with whom they had extensive trade links, but trade routes were also well established as far afield as Peru.

What is clear is that the artistic skill of the civilisations that inhabited Central America was of the highest level. Jade, gold and volcanic rock carvings, as well as numerous pottery pieces, depict all kinds of human and animal themes, including some incredible fertility pieces…some of them a little like the Kama Sutra.

Fertility symbol, Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Fertility symbol, Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Fertility symbol, Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Fertility symbol, Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Fertility symbol, Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Fertility symbol, Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Fertility symbol, Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Fertility symbol, Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Fertility symbol, Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Fertility symbol, Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Of the many animals on display, frogs and birds are most abundant, but there are crocodiles, bats and snakes amongst others. Like all cultures, those in Central America took their inspiration from the natural world and their art reflects their experience of what would have been a much more pristine environment than the one we can see today.

I was struck by the ability of the artists in creating lifelike and yet symbolic human figures out of volcanic rock. Some appear to be smoking, while others carry the decapitated heads of those they have killed in battle.

IMG_6865

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica

Museo de Jade, San Jose, Costa Rica